When Catholics think of Seventh-day Adventists (henceforth, I will refer to them as SDA), they normally think of their doctrinal positions on the keeping of the Sabbath, Old Testament dietary laws still binding for New Testament believers, and their unique beliefs concerning the advent of the Lord. In fact, two of three of these beliefs, or categories of beliefs, are where the name Seventh-day Adventist comes from. And I should note here that each of these represents multiple doctrinal errors that are important for us to be able to grapple with in order that we may bring SDA to the fullness of the truth that we alone possess as Catholics.
However, this article is not about these errors. The SDA teaches far more serious errors that are, unfortunately, lesser known by Catholics. And these errors concern the proper form for baptism, the nature of God, and of our incarnate Lord Jesus Christ.
These errors miss the mark on foundational beliefs of our Catholic Christian faith so essential that some bishops in the Church call into question whether SDA baptism can even be considered valid at all.
Christian or non-Christian?
Ellen Gould White founded the SDA denomination. White was a self-proclaimed prophet and is still believed to be such today by SDA. That belief also is a source of manifold errors in the denomination and is beyond the scope of this article, but the SDA denomination is generally considered (by most Christians) to be a Christian denomination in that its members believe in God as a Trinity of persons yet one God—though, as we will see below, that belief is possibly undermined when it comes to SDA belief concerning the divine nature.
And they also state belief in both the divinity and humanity of Christ. But that belief also becomes muddled when the SDA attempts to explicate it. They also profess belief in Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, in his Second Coming (with a giant twist, shall we say?), and more that could be said to be orthodox Christian belief.
Unfortunately, there are serious problems at the foundational level that render SDA baptism doubtful to many in the Church, leaving the investigation of individual Adventists considering conversion to the Catholic faith to be done on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes a conditional baptism has been deemed necessary. The Magisterium of the Church has never given a definitive answer to this question on a universal level, but you get a mixed bag from the bishops, as well as from various theologians and canonists in the Church.
John M. Huerls, for example, in The Pastoral Companion: A Canon Law Handbook for Catholic Ministry (third edition, Quincy, Ill., Franciscan Press, 1995, 342), says SDA baptisms are valid. Yet, different dioceses will conclude differently.
The archdioceses of Newark, New Jersey, and Baltimore, Maryland, list SDA as having valid baptism. On the other hand, in 2009 the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, listed them as having doubtful baptism. The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania, says the same.
So, what is the basis of the differing opinions in the Church? As I mentioned above, there are at least three key reasons.
A question concerning the form of baptism
According to its 1988 official declaration of Faith “Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines,” which was updated to “28 Fundamental Doctrines” in 2005 (the SDA added “Growing in Christ” as #11 in the new list), baptism is never commanded to be performed at all times in the name of the Blessed Trinity. In #14 (15), there are two allusions to Jesus’ baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” but, again, no plain instruction on the proper form. The first is found under the subheading “Jesus’ Commandment”:
At the end of his ministry, Christ commanded His disciples; “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you.”
Sounds good, right? Oddly, however, under the same subheading, multiple texts in Acts where baptism is mentioned “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 2:38; 10:48; 22:16, for example) are referenced, yet there is no attempt to
explain what appears to be contradictory.
In a later subsection, “Qualifications for Baptism,” baptism is mentioned to be in the name of the Blessed Trinity again but only in the context of instruction and emphasizing its importance:
Christ’s great commission confirms the importance of such instruction: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Becoming a disciple involves thorough instruction.
Again, this is good, but there is no explicit mandate to baptize in the name of the Trinity. Moreover, the “baptismal vows” of the SDA used to be thirteen in number, but in 2005 they were reduced to three (pastors were given an “option” to reduce the number, anyway) with approval of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which is their governing body, resulting in even less certainty of valid baptism. Even explicit confession of belief in the Trinity was removed, and the form of baptism was left to the baptizing minister.
The profound problem here is perhaps most glaringly evident at the official website of the SDA in its article on baptism. The only place Matthew 28:19 is even mentioned places an ellipsis that eliminates words of the form Jesus gave us for baptism in quoting the text itself. So again, there is no mention of the proper form for baptism.
Moreover, on the local level of SDA communities, you find even more confusion. You will always find baptism mentioned and even focused upon. Everything, that is, except for its proper form. This is problematic, because without the proper form for baptism, you do not have the sacrament of baptism at all.
Who is God?
If we add to error #1 grave problems with SDA theology concerning the nature of God, error #2 throws even more confusion into the mix. The problem in a nutshell is SDA teaching that God possesses a body. Let me be clear here: the SDA sound entirely orthodox when you first peruse Fundamentals #2 through #5 where the focus is on “the Godhead” (# 2), “God the Father” (# 3), “God the Son” (#4), and “God the Holy Spirit” (#5):
In contrast to the heathen of surrounding nations, Israel believed there was only one God (Deut. 4:35, 6:4; Isa. 45:5; Zech. 14:9). . . . This monotheistic emphasis does not contradict the Christian concept of the triune God or Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; rather, it affirms there is not a pantheon of various deities (#2).
Jesus, God the Son, provided the most profound view of God the Father when he, as God’s self-revelation, came in human flesh (John 1:1, 14). John states, “No one has seen God at any time. The only-begotten Son . . . has declared him” (John 1:18). Jesus said, “I have come down from heaven” (John 6:38); “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). To know Jesus is to know the Father (#3).
The Bible reveals that the Holy Spirit is a person, not an impersonal force. . . . Scripture views the Holy Spirit as God (#5).
Though there is no clear exposition of the Trinity à la the Council of Florence in the Catholic Church, there is a stated belief here in one God in three persons. However, an enormous problem bursts on the scene in Fundamental #7, “The Nature of Man,” where SDA make this shocking claim: “The Bible indicates that some people have seen parts of God’s person. Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders saw his feet (Exod. 24:9-11).”
God has “parts?”
There is no qualification of anthropomorphism or any such thing here as one might expect, having read Fundamentals #2 through #5. Fundamental #7 goes on to present more examples of Moses seeing “[God’s] back” in Exodus 33:20-33, Daniel seeing “the Ancient of Days seated on a throne” (Dan. 7:9-10), and more, leading to this declaration: “These passages seem to indicate that God is a personal being and has a personal form. This should come as no surprise, for man was created in the image of God.”
It is good that they lessen the definitive nature of this statement with the term “seem,” but, unfortunately, that hardly helps things. A “God” who has a “form” or a body as men do is not God at all. St. Thomas Aquinas provides three reasons why this is impossible in the Summa Theologiae, Pt. 1, Q. 3, Art. 1:
- “Because no body is in motion unless it be put in motion.” If we speak of a being with a body, we are no longer talking about the unmoved mover, or God himself.
- “Because the first being must of necessity be in act, and in no way in potentiality.” Bodies, by definition, possess potency. Therefore, a body would need some being before it already in act in order to actualize it. Thus, if we speak of a being with a body, we are no longer talking about God.
- “A body must either be animate or inanimate; and an animate body is manifestly nobler than any inanimate body.” So God could not be inanimate. Moreover, St. Thomas says, “An animate body is not animate precisely as body; otherwise all bodies would be animate . . . its animation depends upon some other thing. . . . Therefore, it is impossible that God should be a body.”
The key here is to remember that if God has a body, then God would have potency. God would be changeable. According to Malachi 3:6 and James 1:17, a “changeable God” is no God at all.
For I the Lord do not change (Malachi 3:6).
Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).
If God has a body, it would have to be said, at least concerning his body, or whatever “form” he would thus be confined to, he would be “here,” but not “there.” He could move. And as such, he could not be God who is pure actuality, or, as St. James said above, “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
And I should note here that SDA is not referring to the Incarnation, where God having a body has to be understood as avoiding the idea that the divine nature can even possibly have a body, move, or change in any sense of the term. There is not even an attempt at such a clarification. Thus, we have to make clear here that this teaching of God having a “form” or “body” represents a most grave error. This is material heresy, plain and simple.
Who is Jesus Christ?
This third error is really a category consisting of two grave Christological errors. First, and similar to what we saw when we considered SDA teaching on the Trinity, they actually start out on a very good trajectory toward orthodox Christology. In Fundamental #4, “God the Son,” the SDA clearly teach Christ to have two natures and that he is one person.
The person of Jesus Christ has two natures: divine and human. He is the God-man… The Bible describes Jesus as one person, not two. Various texts refer to the divine and human nature, yet speak of only one person.
However, the first of the two Christological errors come to the fore when the SDA refer to the union of the two natures under the heading “The Blending of the Two Natures”:
When Christ came into the world . . . he did not go out of himself to another nature but took humanity into himself. Thus, divinity and humanity were combined . . . the combined divine-human nature makes effective Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
These statements present a variety of metaphysical problems. If the natures are “blended,” then we have a change in the divine nature, which is absurd. And that appears to be what is said when the SDA claims “the natures” are blended and become a “combined divine-human nature.” That would be heresy.
If they are trying to say the divine and human natures are “combined” in the person, you have a similar problem but at the level of the person. The divine person would have then had to change. And this runs us back into Malachi 3:6: “I am the Lord, I do not change.”
Either way, you’ve got heresy.
The truth is, Jesus Christ is one, eternal, unchangeable, divine person who acquired a human nature inasmuch as the subject of that human nature became that same divine person from the instant of the human nature’s conception in the womb of Mary. The natures must always be held to be distinct without any “blending” whatsoever, while at the same time being joined in the union of those two natures in the divine person.
There can be no change whatsoever posited to the divine person or to the divine nature. The only change occurred in the human nature that was lifted up into divinity and acquired an infinite dignity in the process. It did not become a divine nature, or “part” of a divine nature. It acquired an infinite dignity solely because its subject was and is the divine person of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.
There is no room here for a “blended,” or “combined divine-human nature,” or for a “blended” divine-human person when it comes to the historic savior, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
A Sinful Jesus? Possibly
As I mentioned, this last error in SDA theology is really a category consisting of two Christological errors. Here comes error #2: the SDA claim that in order for Jesus to be “fully human,” he had to be able to sin. Otherwise, he would not be “true man, nor our model for imitation.” In Fundamental #4, we read:
We agree with Phillip Schaff, who said, “Had he [Christ] been endowed from the start with absolute impeccability, or with the impossibility of sinning, he could not be a true man, nor our model for imitation: his holiness, instead of being his own self-acquired act and inherent merit, would be an accidental or outward gift, and his temptations an unreal show.”
There seems to be a general misunderstanding of the nature of the hypostatic union here in both the Protestant theologian Phillip Schaff and the SDA. One very important principle that seems to be lost is the fact that whatever is posited of either nature in Christ must ultimately be attributed to the one, divine person. If we keep this mind, we won’t fall too far afield. Thus, you cannot say “God could sin,” even through his human nature. That would imply a moral weakness or defect in the subject, who is God. And that is impossible.
You could say “God learned to talk, walk, learned experientially, and even that God could die” through his experience of all of these in his human nature because none of these imply a moral defect on his part. The crux of the issue is the reduction of Christ to something less than who he is: God.
As far as Christ having to truly merit, all that is necessary for there to be merit is for the subject to be in a wayfaring state and to thus have to overcome obstacles to doing the will of God. Jesus was clearly in a wayfaring state in that he emptied himself of his divine glory in becoming man (see Phil. 2:5-11). His human nature was placed in a situation of having to overcome its natural inclination to self-preservation in Mark 14:36: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will.”
And this is not to mention the fact that Christ also had to both overcome the full weight of both the temptation of the devil and to “[bear] our griefs… and sorrows,” both of which are beyond what even a perfect human nature can accomplish. He had to overcome through grace these and more obstacles we could speak of which is the essence of meriting entails.
The bottom line here is we have yet another example of a Christology that is confused and lacking in essential clarity to the point of material heresy.
Because of the unclear SDA position when it comes to the form of baptism, we have to say that their baptisms are on shaky ground and in need to be investigated on an individual basis among SDA converts to the Catholic faith. And when you add to this grave errors concerning both who God is and who our incarnate Lord is, the ground becomes even more unstable.
When I meet SDA converts, I recommend that they request a conditional baptism for the sake of certainty. Even though SDA baptism has not been declared invalid by the Church in a definitive way, one can see why some dioceses investigate on a case-by-case basis and, at times, perform conditional baptisms.